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From Souness to Hoddle via Allison: Beware the Manager Returning ‘Home’

From Souness to Hoddle via Allison: Beware the Manager Returning ‘Home’

Wednesday, 23 January, 2019 - 06:45
Malcolm Allison, Ally McCoist and Kevin Keegan have returned to manage their former clubs with differing degrees of success. How will Martin O’Neill fare at Nottingham Forest? Photograph: Tom Jenkins, Getty Images, PA and Rex/Shutterstock
London - Scott Murray
Never go back, that’s what they say. It’s beneficial advice. But it is a warning that all too often goes unheeded. Look at them all, hooking up with their exes, visiting their hometown for the first time in years, booking the same holiday in the hope of reliving that perfect break. Don’t do it! That old flame won’t rekindle; an old foe will start a fistfight; it’ll rain all week and the hotel’s now infested with mice. No, it’s best to keep moving forward. Never go back.

They tell you this in the world of football too, but here again folk don’t always listen. History is strewn with tales of managers returning to their alma mater on a white charger in the windswept style, only to come a cropper in short order and limp off in abject defeat. It’s a state of affairs that may give Nottingham Forest pause, as they welcome back Martin O’Neill to the scene of his greatest playing successes, a managerial marriage that’s seemed inevitable for decades, but a romantic appointment fraught with danger.

Even the most giddy affairs can turn sour quicksmart. Take Graeme Souness, the greatest midfielder in Liverpool’s history, who took over at Anfield in 1991 tasked with arresting a slight slip in standards at one of England’s most successful clubs. A smash hit at Rangers, more teacup-bothering success seemed a shoo-in. But within three years, a title-winning machine had collapsed into a bang-average mid-table concern, the Boot Room having been figuratively and literally demolished. Souness’s grand refurbishment project proved so inept, you half expected jets of fire to spurt out whenever you turned on the taps.

Leeds United have questionable form here as well. They spent the bulk of the 1980s engaged in a futile battle to escape from the old Second Division, erstwhile striking hero Allan Clarke having taken them down. Two other elegant stars of the Revie-era dream team, Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner, continued the struggle to no avail.

The salvage job was left to Howard Wilkinson, a man with no professional or emotional links to the club whatsoever, who made a signal point at the start of his reign to take down all the pictures of the glory days. Within four seasons, Leeds were champions of England once more. QED. Keep your distance, legends!

The towering folly of idyllic reconciliation was also ably demonstrated by Malcolm Allison, who in a manner befitting his larger-than-life reputation, took the concept to preposterous extremes. Having masterminded Manchester City’s 1968 title win as a tyro coach under the wing of Joe Mercer, Allison left to unsuccessfully gad about in a big hat and car coat for several years before returning in 1979. The set-up was similar, with Tony Book filling the Mercer role. But the results were not. Within three weeks, City crashed out of the FA Cup at third-tier Shrewsbury. A year on, Allison found himself sacked, and immediately rejoined another of his former clubs, Crystal Palace. That particular return lasted 55 days, a reign that included being knocked out of the cup by – it couldn’t be any other way – Manchester City.

Allison’s CV also contains two stints in charge at Plymouth Argyle, the second of which being mainly memorable for his smashing of a light fitting in a police cell with his shoe. “They said I was drunk and incompetent,” he told the press after getting out of the jug, “and the only way I could prove I was not was by breaking the light.” Spectacular reasoning, and a triptych of botched returns to match.

Many other club legends should in retrospect have swerved the spiritual home: Howard Kendall in his second and third stints at Everton; the Unhappy One on his return to Chelsea; Ally McCoist at Rangers altogether. Then there’s the punchline of that ripe old Titanic groaner, Tottenham Hotspur’s Glenn Hoddle, who should never have left Southampton.

But while Spurs fell from grace with Hod – and didn’t have much luck with Ossie Ardiles either, come to that – their track record in welcoming back old pals is otherwise decent. Spurs have only won two league titles, but both were landed by former players: Arthur Rowe in 1951, and Bill Nicholson a decade later. Nicholson won his first game 10-4 against Everton in 1958, an absurd instant impact that makes Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s influence at Manchester United feel positively Mourinhoesque. “It can only get worse from here,” Danny Blanchflower informed his new boss dryly as he left the pitch. Nicholson set about proving him wrong by masterminding the 1961 Double.

Blanchflower’s fellow Double-winner Dave Mackay later played in Derby County’s promotion side of the late 60s. When boss Brian Clough eventually flounced out in 1973 because Rams chairman Sam Longson had, among other things, put a lock on the office drinks cabinet, Mackay returned from Nottingham Forest to placate an agitated squad threatening to strike. The players knew it wasn’t worth arguing, Mackay being decency incarnate. It also helped that he was still fit to give his charges a skelp around the lug if required. Mackay won the title in his first full season.

Harry Catterick didn’t hang about at Everton either. A striker at Goodison just after the war, Catterick was in the process of building something special at Sheffield Wednesday, finishing second behind Spurs in 1961. But the board balked at his request to buy Hibs striker Joe Baker, and so he chipped off to Merseyside in a huff, any old excuse to take the job he’d always coveted most. Within two seasons, he’d won Everton’s first championship since 1939. Not bad for someone whose return was greeted with underwhelmed shrugging. Much like George Graham at Arsenal in 1986, and he didn’t do too badly either.

Joe Royle, one of Catterick’s 1970 champions, doesn’t quite boast the CV of his old boss. While he’s the last Everton manager to win anything, the 1995 FA Cup, perhaps his greater legacy was the restoration of Evertonian values after the debacle of the Mike Walker era. See also Kenny Dalglish in the wake of the Roy Hodgson fiasco, and the aforementioned Solskjær, whose stint spring-cleaning Old Trafford will surely qualify as a success whatever the material outcome. Some things are worth more than mere silverware; you only have to point to Tom Finney or Matt Le Tissier to prove that.

Which naturally brings us to Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United. Yeah, yeah, so he didn’t win anything. But the man always knew how to put on a show, as evidenced by the manner in which he departed as a player in 1984, coptered up and away like Nixon. Having hauled the Magpies out of the old Second Division with his boots on, he repeated the trick eight years later from the dugout, then in 1996 oversaw one of the great doomed title tilts. A success of sorts? A success totally! After all, we’re still talking fondly about Keegan’s side today, unlike the Manchester United team that actually prevailed that year.

Newcastle’s story was a bittersweet triumph, a tearjerker that knocks Casablanca and Brief Encounter into a cocked hat full of used tissues. It wouldn’t be perfect, of course, but chances are O’Neill and Forest would settle for a similarly memorable romance.

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